Thursday, 22 December 2011

My Top 5 Spanish Films Viewed in 2011

Given that I don't live in Spain, I tend to see films when they're released on DVD; usually a year after their initial cinema release. So, these films aren't all 'from' 2011 but I've limited myself to films that were released in Spanish cinemas in either 2011 or 2010. This top 5 is comprised of films that I viewed this year and wrote about on the blog -either as standalone posts, or as part of the Random Viewing thread.

1. Primos (Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, 2011)
A warm hug of a film -the affection that writer-director Daniel Sánchez Arévalo has for his characters is infectious. The collection of actors (Quim Gutierrez, Antonio de la Torre, Raúl Arévalo) who are becoming his de facto repertory company also form (along with Adrián Lastra, Inma Cuesta, and Clara Lago) one of the best ensemble casts of the year.

2. Pa negre (Agustí Villaronga, 2010)
A dark and otherworldly tale of innocence lost. A child's eye view of adult deceit and destruction. One of the most brutal opening sequences I can remember ever watching.

3. La mitad de Óscar (Manuel Martín Cuenca, 2011)
Probably one of the most atmospheric films I saw this year (in any language); it makes distinctive use of the landscape / geographic space and also assuredly cranks up the tension (we know that something is being pointedly ignored by the two siblings (bravura performances from Rodrigo Sáenz de Heredia and Verónica Echegui) but it hovers just out of sight for most of the film). It builds to a quietly devastating final scene between the two siblings that plays out in one long take with them in silhouette as the sun rises behind them: a strong contender for scene of the year, in my opinion (I saw the film back in September and it is still stuck in my mind).

4. Todas las canciones hablan de mí (Jonás Trueba, 2010)
A brilliant comedic romantic drama -guaranteed to put a spring in your step. I will hopefully write something longer about it in the New Year (it has only been briefly covered in a Random Viewing post so far).

5. Balada triste de trompeta (Álex de la Iglesia, 2010)
Not quite as batshit insane as the trailer makes out but nonetheless full of vivid imagery that scorches your retina and refuses to leave your mind (along with that song, which I have been humming ever since). Whatever your opinion of the overall whole (people seem to be divided between hating it or declaring it a masterpiece), I'd hope that most would have at least a glimmer of admiration for a writer-director going this 'all out'. Plaudits also go to the three leads -Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, and Carolina Bang- the film wouldn't work if they weren't all committed to their roles, or if one performance overwhelmed the other two. The film will hopefully have a standalone post early in the New Year.

Honourable mentions: La mosquitera (Agustí Vila, 2010), Chico y Rita (Fernando Trueba & Javier Mariscal, 2011), Agnosia (Eugenio Mira, 2010), Flamenco Flamenco (Carlos Saura, 2010), La piel que habito (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011), La mujer sin piano (Javier Rebollo, 2010) and Héroes (Pau Freixas, 2010).

Films from 2010* that I still need to track down: Bon appétit (David Pinillos, 2010), El Gran Vázquez (Óscar Aibar, 2010), La isla interior (Dunia Ayaso & Félix Sabroso, 2010), Pájaros de papel (Emilio Aragón, 2010), Que se mueran los feos (Nacho G. Velilla, 2010), También la lluvia (Icíar Bollaín, 2010), Todo lo que tú quieras (Achero Mañas, 2010). *films from 2011 that I still need to track down will appear in a forthcoming post.

Films that didn't fit the 2010 / 2011 criteria but that you should definitely see: Los cronocrímenes (Nacho Vigalondo, 2007), Salto al vacio (Daniel Calparsoro, 1995), La madre muerta (Juanma Bajo Ulloa, 1993 -I wrote two posts on this one –here and here), Nadie hablará de nosotras cuando hayamos muerto (Agustín Díaz Yanes, 1995 -a longer post on this one will appear in 2012), and Entre tinieblas (Pedro Almodóvar, 1983).

Hero of the Year: Filmin -without this Spanish streaming service I would have seen far fewer recent Spanish films (I first saw three of my top 5 via their service, and a further 4 of the honourable mentions) simply because of how expensive it is to import DVDs. I am also more likely to take a 'risk' on films that I know little about -as was the case with La mitad de Óscar- when using an all-included subscription service, which broadens the variety of films that this blog covers and hopefully makes it a bit more interesting.

I’ll be taking a break from the blog between Christmas and New Year –I’ll be back in January with posts on films from 2011 that I still want to catch up with, and on the Spanish films due for release in 2012 that I’m most interested in.

Merry Christmas –and I’ll ‘see’ you in 2012!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Not-So-Random-Viewing: Álex de la Iglesia Edition

Clockwise from top left: Balada triste de trompeta / The Last Circus (Álex de la Iglesia, 2010), 800 balas / 800 Bullets (Álex de la Iglesia, 2002), The Oxford Murders (Álex de la Iglesia, 2008), El día de la bestia / Day of the Beast (Álex de la Iglesia, 1995).

   Balada triste de trompeta featured in one of my first posts on this blog as one of the films from last year that I most wanted to catch up with in 2011. I'm going to write a standalone post about the film in (hopefully) January -I need to watch it again before attempting to write anything of any decent length and I won't have the time until after Christmas. [I know I quite often say that and things still haven't materialised, but Nadie hablará de nosotras cuando hayamos muerto and a joint post about Los lunes al sol and Biutiful are still percolating in my brain, honest].
   However, on first impressions it strikes me as a culmination of de la Iglesia's work to date and it will be interesting to see where he has gone with his next film, La chispa de la vida (due for release in Spain in January); Balada triste de trompeta almost feels like an end point in terms of certain themes that recur across the director's work. It is unmistakably 'an Álex de la Iglesia film' in terms of the vividness and inventiveness of the imagery and an extremity of violence that takes on an almost cartoon-like quality; this is filmmaking that is by turns both exhilarating and highly disturbing. The circus is the perfect setting for the lunacy, violence, dark humour, and cruelty that run through de la Iglesia's films; given the miscreants, misfits, and malcontents who populate his films, it is almost a surprise that he hasn't set a story in this world before (although several of his films take place within an entertainment setting -a television comedy double-act in Muertos de risa and a Western sideshow spectacle in 800 balas).
   It was the sense that Balada represents a culmination of his work that made me watch the only two of his films that I hadn't seen previously: 800 balas and The Oxford Murders. 800 balas is in many ways a paean to cinema, filmmaking, and the type of films 'they don't make anymore'. The film takes place on old film sets in Almeria (the location for many Westerns filmed in the 1950s/60s, including Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy) where a former stuntman (Sancho Gracia) reenacts his glory days with a gang of reprobates as they stage a 'Western sideshow' for the dwindling number of visiting tourists. It is a warm tribute to a world that no longer exists. I had two surprises watching The Oxford Murders -1) that it was nowhere near as bad as the UK reviews had led me to believe, and 2) how little of de la Iglesia's normal visual style it contained; it was as if the tepid English sunlight had diluted his usual visual dazzling.
   Then I decided to rewatch El día de la bestia because it is my favourite of his films (and one of my favourite films, full stop) - and as it takes place on Christmas Eve it seemed appropriately festive (insofar as a film about a priest (Alex Angulo), a TV psychic / paranormal expert (Armando de Razza), and a death-metal fan (Santiago Segura) attempting to stop the birth of the Antichrist can be 'festive'). I've never understood why it isn't available in the UK (likewise his Carmen Maura-starring La comunidad (2000)) given that several of his other films are, and it currently also seems to be OOP in Spain. If you get the chance to see it, do so -it is very funny and a deeply affectionate take on the horror film.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Another Book Added

Mira, A. (2010) -The A-Z of Spanish Cinema, Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN: 9780810876224.

The merits of A-Z type compendiums have always appeared somewhat dubious to me as they usually tend towards the simplistic and obvious (although Routledge's Key Concepts series, which operates along similar lines, has always been excellent). Happily that is not the case here. I haven't come across The Scarecrow Press's A-Z series previously, but it covers a broad range of subjects -this book is no.244 in the series (nestled in between The A-Z of U.S. diplomacy from World War I through World War II and The A-Z of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation).
The book starts with a chronology of Spanish cinema between 1896 and 2008, then has a fairly substantial introductory chapter before moving onto the dictionary proper. The dictionary includes entries on key films, themes (including specifically Spanish terms such as costumbrismo), directors, writers, producers, and actors. I think it benefits from being the work of just one person because it feels like a unified whole with a consistent viewpoint and entries cross-referencing other entries. One can always quibble with what gets left out but actually the balance is pretty evenly struck between old and modern classics, and the range of individuals covered also feels varied (there is a mix of generations, but all are established names). But I think that the crowning glory is the 94-page bibliography. It is the most extensive and exhaustive bibliography on Spanish cinema that I've ever come across; I've been seeking these things out for years and this bibliography is seriously impressive (If you're the type of person who is impressed by bibliographies. Which I am). The bibliography is divided into several sections (some items appear in more than section): General and Reference; Origins and Silent Years (1896-1931); Republican Period and the Civil War (1931-1939); Early Francoism (1939-1960); The Desarrollismo Period and Late Francoism (1961-1975); Transition Period and Socialist Change (1975-1990); Recent Spanish Cinema (from 1990); Specific Filmmakers; Legislation and Economy; Autonomous Regions; Journals; Internet Sites. I've been merrily filling in Inter-Library Loan request forms ever since this book arrived through the post. If you're researching / interested in specific periods of Spanish cinema, or specific Spanish filmmakers, this book would be an excellent starting point.

This will be added to Books on Spanish Cinema, Part Two 

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Random Viewing

Left to right: El mal ajeno / For the Good of Others (Oskar Santos, 2009), Lope / The Outlaw (Andrucha Waddington, 2010).

El mal ajeno is a directorial debut with pedigree -produced by Alejandro Amenábar and written by Daniel Sánchez Arévalo (both of whom are writer-directors who have consistently made interesting films), and starring a top-tier cast in the form of Eduardo Noriega, Belén Rueda, Angie Cepeda, and Clara Lago. It's a thriller of sorts, with elements of the fantastic (a combination that could be considered very Amenábarian, and certainly the central premise feels like something he could have made around the time of Abre los ojos). A doctor (Noriega -here playing older than he is in reality) who specialises in pain control in terminal cases has numbed himself to everything around him (he comments that in blocking out the bad / suffering that surrounds his job, he has also ended up blocking the good as well). However after a traumatic event connected to one of his patients, a pregnant young woman in a coma (Cepeda), he comes to realise that he is not as unscathed as he first appears, and that every good deed has its price. I'm not going to give any more of the plot away because it will be more enjoyable to watch without prior knowledge. Although I felt it petered out a bit towards the end, the film starts really strongly and the central premise is an intriguing one -the film marks Oskar Santos out as someone to keep an eye on. 
Lope was released on DVD in the UK back in October, although for some reason it has been retitled as The Outlaw, which isn't just a nondescript title but also somewhat misleading as to the content. The film is actually a drama based around the early career of Lope de Vega (Alberto Ammann -seen recently by UK audiences in Celda 211), a Spanish playwright who dominated Spain's early Golden Age and revolutionised the theatre. They have condensed around eight years of his life into the space of several months and played up a love triangle angle, as he finds himself caught between his theatre-owning benefactor's daughter (Pilar López de Ayala) and a childhood friend (Leonor Watling). As he starts to push the boundaries of what was expected (and accepted) on stage, he becomes increasingly frustrated by the conditions set on his work by his benefactor (Juan Diego) and begins to push social boundaries as well, which will have far-reaching repercussions for himself and those around him... Saying that it's a bit like a Spanish Shakespeare in Love isn't entirely accurate because it doesn't have the humorous tone that parts of that film has (and there's no 'bit with a dog'), but it's not entirely dissimilar either given the subject matter (theatre, love, and the making of a literary 'name').